The Question We Struggle to Answer
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.[i]
Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way…”[ii]
An “aha!” moment
Committee on Ministry examinations don’t usually give me “aha!” moments.
But this one did.
We were interviewing Denise Diaab in preparation for her ordination trials. Her statement of faith had an interesting line: “…each day we see manifestations of God’s reign, not by human agency, but rather by the power of God within us.”
Gail Stearns[iii] latched on. “How do you tell the difference between people working for justice in the world and God working for justice through people?”
It struck me as the question we struggle to answer. Our common efforts—whether in the life of our country, our denomination, our presbytery, or our churches—desperately need a response to Gail’s question.
An agonizing year
It’s been an agonizing year. Like you, I have been heartsick:
at the depths of indifference and cruelty we have seen;
at the heights of rage and despair;
at others’ reactions stemming from financial or physical fear;
at the injustice that plays on repeat, just with new names and places.
And like you, I have yearned to respond with integrity:
to provide an alternative to a divisive world;
to use what influence we have to lift up those who society would cast aside;
to hold together the flock and help them care for each other;
to love our congregants and fellow presbyters.
Quite honestly, it’s been exhausting. But perhaps most painfully—I just want to do something.
“I’m just so fired up”
But where to start? The 24-hour news cycle whips us from one crisis to another. If we let our viewing habits determine our priorities, we will not have the staying power to bring any single priority to fruition.
Our fifteen-second world may make us newly aware of our neighbors’ needs. But it may also just get us worked up willy-nilly.[iv] It’s like one pastor-friend on Facebook commented several months ago: “I’m just so fired up and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Back to Gail’s question, then. How do we know what to pursue and what to ignore?
Christ working through me
The next moment in the COM meeting is a blur. An answer to Gail’s question came to me. But was it from the Holy Spirit, or was it from Denise? Or was it the Holy Spirit speaking to me through Denise? Or through Gail’s question? I have no idea. All I know is that what came into my head didn’t come from me.
But what came was decisive. We in whom Christ lives aren’t supposed to decide for ourselves where to focus. Instead, we let the Spirit of Christ in us take hold, and then we let it do what it will do. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ lives in me…”[v]
When the Spirit grabs hold of me, its actions—and by extension, my actions—will, by their very nature, be just, merciful, redeeming. I will find myself acting, through no power or wisdom of my own, according to my deepest longings and the world’s deepest needs.
Honestly, the pragmatist in me balks at that answer. It feels like an evasion—“pray, and then do whatever feels right.” It seems to leave too much room to dodge what God wants and do what I want. Or, maybe more to the point, it seems to leave room for me to avoid what I don’t want—especially when I don’t want to carry the burden of neighbor-love. “No, God isn’t calling me to that…”
Wouldn’t it be more faithful just to read the Bible and then do what it says?
Maybe. But as soon as we start “doing what the Bible says,” it steers us right back to God’s Spirit.
- Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts (Zech. 4:6).
- When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away (Acts 8:39).
- Do not quench the Spirit (I Thess. 5:19).
- If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25).
And if we really do live by the Spirit, it will lead us out of our privileged excuses and right into the places we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. It won’t be a dodge at all.
Most of you reading are either pastors or members of churches in Los Ranchos. You are on the brink of returning to in-person worship—either just having returned, or planning to return soon.
You have weathered an agonizing year. You have worked through shelter-in-place. You have made the pivot to online worship, whether by Zoom or livestreaming or YouTube videos. You have asked hard questions about loving your neighbors even as their pain has become impossible to ignore. For all of this, and more, I am glad.
But you are now on the brink of a new burden. What will your new church look like? Not just which people will come back. How will you and they embody the Christ-life when you gather again? The options can be overwhelming, even paralyzing. The prospects can be exhausting.
How, then, to decide? Perhaps this is where Denise’s words become important: “…not by human agency, but by the power of God within us.”
What might it look like for your church leaders to find their way forward, not by strength of will or wits, but by the leading of God’s Spirit? Where might you find yourselves? And—while we’re being honest—where would you rather not go, but will go anyway, because God is the One who leads?
Somewhere along the Way—
[i] Galatians 2:19b-20a. All Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.
[ii] John 14:5-6a.
[iii] Gail is Dean of the Chapel at Chapman University and a member of COM.
[iv] See Ephesians 4:14.
[v] Denise made a wonderful distinction here. She lifted up the difference between a social worker and a spiritual worker. Both make important contributions to the world. But they are not the same.